Drone Pilot Salary: How Much Can You Earn in This Exciting Career?

Having a full-fledged career as a drone pilot sounds exciting, but how much does a drone pilot make? Let’s find out.
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Last updatedLast updated: June 15, 2024
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As a drone enthusiast, you may have wondered how much a drone pilot salary is and if you could make a career out of it. Drone piloting is an exciting and rewarding career, but the amount of salary you earn would depend on various factors. Your level of experience, the industry you are in, and whether you are working as a full-time employee or freelancer are some factors that will determine how much you earn. Industries that rely on drones heavily like film and TV pay higher salaries than others. If you want unlimited earning capacity, work as a self-employed or freelance pilot.

In this article, we delve deep into salaries for different drone pilots so you know what to expect as a freelancer or employee. We also provide tips on how to make the most out of the industry and earn higher rates as a drone pilot.

Who Employs Drone Pilots?

Drone Pilot Salary: How Much Can You Earn in This Exciting Career?The first thing that crosses a drone enthusiast’s mind before thinking of the average drone pilot’s salary is where to get work. Anyone who needs to use a drone can hire a drone operator. However, some industries rely on drones more than others. Prime examples of such industries are film and TV. They almost always need UAV pilots for professional aerial photography and videography.

You can work as a full-time employee for a drone piloting company or companies big enough to hire a UAV pilot. You can also work as a freelancer and offer your piloting services to different companies or clients on a contract basis or take shots for some celebrations like weddings. You may need special equipment for that so check out our reviews of the best drones for wedding photography.

Self-Employed Drone Operators

A self-employed drone pilot runs their business themselves. Many self-employed drone operators are highly experienced with vast knowledge of the drone industry. They can easily market their services to different clients.

Being a self-employed drone operator sounds exciting because of all the freedom. However, it comes with the most risk as you would have to look for work yourself as well as get all the necessary licenses and insurance for your business. In essence, you must have an entrepreneurial spirit and be comfortable with uncertainty.

Freelance Drone Operators

Freelancing is the ultimate path to follow if you want more control over work schedules and rates. You would be working on a project-by-project basis for different clients. The best thing about being a freelance drone pilot is flexibility and unlimited earning capacity. You will choose the projects to work on and negotiate your rates.

The downside of freelancing is the difficulty in securing consistent work and repeat clients. You also have to get licenses and insurance for your business yourself.

Professional Drone Operators

A professional drone operator has a lot of knowledge and experience and mostly works as a freelancer on project-by-project basis for different clients. Many companies or anyone who needs to use a drone prefer to hire a local drone pilot because of convenience.

If you want to work as a professional drone operator you can build your portfolio and look for clients. As a beginner, check out some of the popular UAV pilot networks, register, and build a portfolio. The platforms will help you find work that fits your profile from various industries.

What is the Expected Drone Pilot Salary?

Working as a certified drone pilot is relatively new in the labor market that even the Bureau Labor Statistics is yet to start collecting information about it.  Glassdoor Trusted Source How much does a Drone Pilot make? The estimated total pay for a Drone Pilot is $79,484 per year in the United States area, with an average salary of $58,822 per year.  www.glassdoor.com is the only other trusted place to look for salaries and this is what we found:

The average drone operator’s salary is $79,000, though the figure may be exaggerated because manned pilots are included in the calculations.

UAS pilot salaries for base employees range between $62,000 and $70,000.

UAV operator job listings had salaries ranging between $33,000 and $40,000.

Drone Operator Salary by Industry

Here are UAV pilot salaries across different industries.

Industry Average Drone Pilot Salary
Aerospace and Defense $84,295
Construction $79,368
Environmental Services $83,856
Film and Video $69,107
Mapping and Surveying $88,196
Real Estate $77,247
Transportation $85,715
All Other Industries $89,264

From the table, it is clear that Aerospace and Defense is the highest-paying industry that any drone pilot should look into. Film and video pays the least salary yet it is the industry with heavy drone use. This means that you may need to look for work in less saturated industries to earn higher rates as a drone pilot.

Drone Operator Salary by Location

Your location as a drone pilot is another factor that affects your pay. Here is a quick rundown of certified drone pilot salaries according to location.

Location Drone Operator Salary
Northeast $87,068
Midwest $81,153
South $76,695
West $90,195

Although the margins are not that big, the average drone pilot salary in the West is alluring. Anyone would want to be where the big bucks are.

Regions aside, the average drone pilot salary also varies across cities and towns.

Location Average Drone Pilot Salary
Phoenix, AZ $80,819
Los Angeles, CA $91,386
Denver, CO $81,568
Washington, DC $91,075
Miami, FL $77,723
Atlanta, GA $80,929
Chicago, IL $86,795
Minneapolis, MN $87,164
New York City, NY $98,422
Raleigh, NC $79,171
Portsmouth, OH $74,696
Portland, OR $84,937
Philadelphia, PA $87,639
Nashville, TN $76,033
Dallas, TX $81,282
Seattle, WA $89,455

Hourly Rate for Drone Pilots

It helps to know the hourly rates if you choose self-employment or freelancing paths. Hourly rates will help you calculate your salary as an entry-level, experienced, or senior-level drone pilot.

Experience Level Hourly Rate
Entry-Level $41.21
Experienced $53.91
Senior-Level $74.04

Average Hourly Drone Pilot Salary by Industry

According to  Salary.com Trusted Source Hourly wage for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Pilot | Salary.com The average hourly wage for an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Pilot in the United States is $40 as of February 27, 2023, but the salary range typically falls between $29 and $48. www.salary.com industry is one of the many critical factors that affect drone pilot hourly pay rates. Some of the top industries with heavy drone usage include; construction, oil and mining, solar, surveying, agriculture, and real estate. If you are looking to have a full-fledged career in drone piloting, invest in proper training and certification to increase your earning capacity in various industries.

Oil and gas have the higher hourly rates, followed by mining, surveying, solar, and emergency response. Construction, agriculture, and real estate have the lowest hourly rates even though the pay is decent.

Freelance vs Full-Time UAV Pilot Salary

Freelance drone pilot salary is not the same as full-time UAV pilot salary. Freelancers earn between $35 and $150 per hour, while full-time UAV pilots earn between $80 and $120. The median hourly rate for freelancers is $85 and for employed drone pilots is $95.

Freelancing is more attractive than full-time employment in terms of pay, but if you love teamwork and consistent work full-time employment is your best bet.

Determining the Appropriate Pricing for Your Drone Services

Drone Pilot Salary: How Much Can You Earn in This Exciting Career?Many variables are at play when it comes to pricing drone services. There is no standard number that you can name, but a few parameters can help you create a profitable price point. They include the following;

Expenses for Traveling

Traveling may be part of the job, but you have to factor in excess mileage and travel time. Drone pilots that cover large areas apply travel surcharge by charging higher hourly rates to make up for the extra time spent on the road.

Coverage of Insurance

According to the  Insurance Information Institute Trusted Source Drones and insurance | III Even for recreational use, the Federal Aviation Administration requires that all drones weighing over 55 pounds must now be registered. If you do not register your drone, you may be subject to criminal and civil penalties. www.iii.org , insurance coverage is a must-have for all commercial drone operators. The FAA has different insurance requirements for different industries. For instance, the standard insurance policy for commercial drones is $1,000,000, but industries like mining usually require drone pilots to carry bigger policies. Pilots in such industries charge higher hourly rates to offset the high insurance costs.

Field/Market of Operation

As mentioned earlier, industry type affects drone pilot salary significantly. Industries like oil and mining pay higher rates because the certifications and insurance coverage required to pilot a drone are relatively expensive. You will not charge the same rates in real estate or film industry projects as you would in mining projects.

Quality and Deliverables

Your price points should reflect the quality of your deliverables. You can have higher hourly rates if you can prove to a client that you have exponential photography experience or engineering background. Additional certifications will also bump up your earning potential as they would be proof that you can deliver quality work. Clients only care about deliverables.

Amount of Time Invested

Your pricing model should include all the time you spend working, from travel time and on-site time to all the time you spend processing data and preparing deliverables. Many drone pilots who overlook the extra time spent on different tasks end up working for less than minimum wage.

Can You Make a Living as a Commercial Drone Pilot?

By all accounts, drone popularity is increasing rapidly. This means that demand for drone pilots is also on the rise. With the right education, certifications, and a bit of experience, you can earn a decent commercial drone pilot salary to live on.

The least a commercial drone pilot can earn is $20 per hour, which equals $42,000 per annum. A professional drone pilot’s salary can be as high as $82 per hour, which is $171,500. According to a survey by Airstoc, some commercial drone pilots in the U.S. make up to $500 per hour.

What Are the UAV Job Positions That Pay a Salary Exceeding $100K?

Drone pilot jobs salaries vary and some pay higher than others.

Surveying or Mapping Engineer

The use of drones in topographic surveys has become more popular because they are cheaper and more convenient than traditional methods. Surveying and mapping engineers are on high demand with a typical salary of $56 per hour. Besides site survey expenses, they reduce field professionals’ burdens significantly.

Real Estate Photographer

Nowadays it is hard to sell a house or property without aerial images. Buyers get a better sense of a property’s appearance and surroundings through aerial images and videos. This means that real estate photography is a booming industry. The average real estate photographer makes an hourly rate of $51.

UAV Pilot Instructor

As a UAV pilot instructor, you would train people who want to improve their expertise in theory and operational skills in drone flying. UAV pilot instructors earn $48 per hour and $100,600 annually.

Inspection & Monitoring

In place of high-altitude systems in satellites or airplanes, drones are used to obtain high levels of detail and accuracy during ground inspection and monitoring to reduce costs. The measurement equipment is installed under the drone to collect information from low altitudes.

The UAV-based monitoring system is commonly used for pollution monitoring, forest fire detection, disaster monitoring, and powerline inspection, among others. A drone pilot in the inspection and monitoring role earns an hourly wage of $48.

Search and Rescue

Emergency services like firefighters, disaster response, and rescue teams use drones to provide real-time visual information and data after a natural disaster occurs. Drones also come in handy when searching for lost persons. In such a role, a drone operator can expect a salary of $100,000 per year.

Do you need a premium quality drone that offers excellent value for money with high-end features and rugged build quality? Read our reviews of the best drones under $2000 for unmatched options.

The popular SwellPRO Spry+ Plus and DJI Mavic 3 are prime examples of top-rated drones under $2000. The SwellPRO Spry + Plus is perfect for flying over water as it is fully waterproof and buoyant. The DJI Mavic 3 offers a decent flight time of 46 minutes and a high-end camera for professional images.

How Can You Increase Your Salary as a Drone Pilot?

At this point, it is quite clear that many drone jobs pay over $100,000 annually. However, you must remember that the salary you will earn as a drone pilot depends on the industry you will work in, your skills, and your level of experience. An entry-level drone pilot’s salary is not the same as an experienced, professional drone pilot’s salary in a lucrative industry.

Are you in the market for a high-quality drone for outdoor adventure? Read our articles on the best drones for windy conditions for top-rated models and comprehensive buying guides.


Can operating a drone be a profitable business?

A drone business can be highly profitable if done with the right approach. Many organizations use drones for different purposes, including package delivery, construction inspection, surveying damaged areas after natural disasters, and much more. You can make the most of the endless opportunities in various industries if you do proper research.

Is there a high demand for drone pilots?

Drone use is more popular and is expected to rise to 51.1% in the next five years. Different industries like construction, advertising, and security firms are expected to spend more on drones in the next decade. Since drones have not been fully automated, demand for pilots to give human supervision for certain operations as per the FAA rules is going to be at an all-time high.

What can be expected in the future for the salaries of drone operators?

More industries are investing in drones, which means a promising future for drone pilots. There will be more opportunities, and finding sustainable, well-paying work won’t be a hassle. If you want to have a successful career as a drone pilot, invest in the right training and certifications now because the future is bright.

Final thoughts

The drone industry is growing exponentially and is expected to be more popular in the coming years. You can live decently on a certified drone pilot salary in today’s economy. There are different paths to choose if you are considering drone piloting as a career; you can be self-employed, a freelancer, or a full-time employee at an organization. Freelancing is fun because of the flexibility and unlimited earning capacity, but some people prefer the consistency of a military drone pilot’s salary or an airforce drone pilot’s salary.

Whichever path you choose, you can increase your earning potential by investing in the right training and certifications. Your skills, experience, and certifications will make you a highly-sought after drone pilot by the highest-paying industries. Remember, clients only care about deliverables.


How much does a Drone Pilot make?
The estimated total pay for a Drone Pilot is $79,484 per year in the United States area, with an average salary of $58,822 per year. 
Hourly wage for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Pilot | Salary.com
The average hourly wage for an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Pilot in the United States is $40 as of February 27, 2023, but the salary range typically falls between $29 and $48.
Drones and insurance | III
Even for recreational use, the Federal Aviation Administration requires that all drones weighing over 55 pounds must now be registered. If you do not register your drone, you may be subject to criminal and civil penalties.
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